Earlier this week, I moderated a Q&A at the University of Texas at Arlington at a conference called the “Building Better Boards Workshop,” which was aimed at board members from transit agencies around Texas. I was unable to attend the entirety of the two-day event (deadlines, deadlines), but I was able to lead a conversation with transit consultant and former Houston METRO board member Christof Spieler. I think I asked one-and-a-half questions during our Q&A—most of the time was sucked up by board members in the audience who were eager to learn from Spieler’s experience helping Houston METRO revolutionize its bus system. The board members’ curiosity and openness were encouraging.
The conversation was particularly relevant to Dallas. DART recently signed a contract with the firm of Jarrett Walker to look at its bus system. Walker is the same consultant who helped lead Houston’s bus revamp process. DART board members at the conference asked Spieler about his experience navigating what turned out to be complicated political and technical process. Spieler said pushing the new bus network not only required shifting an transit agency’s entrenched attitudes, but it also meant assuring existing bus riders that the changes to the system would mean better service in the long run, even if it would disrupt their commute in the short term. Spieler’s advice could be boiled down to education and advocacy. Start having conversations early and include all invested parties: agency staff and brass, local community groups, city officials, city staff, current riders, and future riders. And don’t forget to talk to the bus drivers too.
Spieler opened the discussion with remarks about his new book Trains, Buses, People: An Opinionated Atlas of US Transit. In the book, Spieler maps the transit systems in dozens of American cities to help illustrate what works and what doesn’t work. He boils down what works to a few straightforward principles: density, activity, walkability, connectivity, frequency, travel time, reliability, capacity, legibility. These principles are intuitive, and yet surprisingly difficult to achieve without strong political will and community focus.
There was one detail that jumped out at me during Spieler’s presentation because it was so glaringly simple and yet so prevalent. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, DART’s bus system tends to be very difficult to navigate because it lacks some simple amenities, like bus shelters at every bus stop. Bus shelters not only offer riders protection from the elements, they help tell riders and non-riders that a bus will arrive at a given point on a given street. But at many DART bus stops, all riders and potential riders have today is a little yellow sign on a post that has a few numbers printed on it. Unless you have carefully studied the system and memorized its complicated tangle of routes, those numbers are completely incomprehensible.
But there is an even more basic piece of information that you could provide riders even without building a shelter or providing better signage. As Spieler pointed out, in most US cities, when you stand at a bus stop, you have no idea what direction the bus that comes is headed. North, south, east, west? Downtown? Uptown? Look at the sign in the image above. There is no way to know where on earth you will end up if you take the plunge and step onto one of those numbered buses.
Spieler made a simple comparison to capture how ridiculous this is. Imagine if Interstate 35 had entry ramps with signs that only said “I-35,” and the signs didn’t tell you which direction the road you were entering was headed—to Houston or Dallas. It is incomprehensible that we would ever put drivers in this position, and yet, that is exactly the conundrum DART puts its bus riders in. It is one of the many tiny, insidious indignities DART forces its riders to endure in order to use public transit.
These little details are important to keep in mind as DART moves forward with its plans to reconfigure its bus routes. They are the little things that contribute to overall functionality of the public transit system. The good news is, judging from this week’s UTA conference, there are smart members of the DART board who are attuned to many of these issues. We will need them to carry the DART staff, existing riders, bus drivers, and the wider public through what will be a difficult, the ultimately landmark process.